Limits of Vision: exploring Teju Cole

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 12:22

According to the New York Times Book Review, ‘the world belongs to Teju Cole’. Here, Debo Amon, Southbank Centre Literature Programmer, gives an overview of Cole’s works, looking at their thematic links.


Over the course of four books - each of which traverses the landscapes of history, art and architecture - writer, art historian and photographer Teju Cole shares a view of the world with his readers that can only be thought of as profoundly humanist. Cole’s writing illuminates the world around us, showing us that all things, from the mundane to the sublime contain a multitude of stories. That the past, told or untold, interacts with the present giving it both meaning and texture, and can need to be acknowledged if we have any hope of securing a better future.

Open​ ​City 

What we knew, I said to him, was so much less than what remained in darkness
Excerpt from Open City by Teju Cole

In this striking debut novel, Cole traces the story of Julius, a Nigerian psychiatric student, as he wanders through his adopted home of New York City. The simplicity of the plot gives space for Cole through his protagonist, Julius, to engage in a dialogue with with the world around us. 

By weaving the complex histories of his protagonist, the city of New York through one another, Cole points to the constructed nature of history and memory itself. Whether it is Julius’ own memories of growing up in Nigeria, the journey of a librarian refugee from his home to a New York detention centre, or a memorial of New York City police officers killed in the line of duty, all history contains an element of myth-making. Cole presents this as anything but singular, and shows through his references to art, music and urban landscapes that the stories of people, places and cultures, remain in constant dialogue with the past, the present and the multitude of perspectives that contain them. 

Every Day is for the Thief

These are incidents from a book I love. Incidents, to be exact, from a dream in that book… It is my story now, not his.
Excerpt from Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Those are the words of the unnamed narrator of Everyday is for the Thief, a novel in some ways similar to Open City but altogether different. The narrator says this after using a quote from Michael Ondaatje’s book Running in the Family to describe the feeling of returning to his aunt’s house after a long absence. 

This moment early on in the book is particularly interesting because although the book is written in a style more akin to reportage than fiction, Cole clearly shows his narrator actively constructing the memory of his return to Lagos, and borrowing from his own past (and another author) to do so. If Open City was Cole highlighting the formation of histories and memories to stress the the multitude of others that exist, Everyday is for the Thief is Cole showing us that formation at work. 

Teju Cole

Known​ ​and​ ​Strange​ ​Things 

We hope, through the spooky art of writing, to trick ourselves into divulging truths that we do not know we know.
Excerpt from Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

In this sharply observed and artful collection of essays, Cole pursues a grounding for his humanism. The collection - offering both an appreciation of the sublime and those gifted (as Cole sees it) with epiphany, as well as a consideration on the the effect of art and its assumed ability to create empathy - is at once a search for a way forward, without ignoring the past. 

It seems for Cole that at worst, music, fiction, photography and art in general can provide nuance and texture to a world that sorely needs it. However, he is clearly aiming for more. In his own search for enlightenment, Known and Strange Things feels like a quest for epiphany which he seeks share with us. 

Blind Spot

Each photo, when seen, when brought out of the small, dark room, is a fulfilment of prophecy
Excerpt from Blind Spot by Teju Cole

This collection of Teju Cole’s photographs and writing, completes - with his previous three works - what he calls ‘a quartet about the limits of vision’. As Cole puts it, the writing in Blind Spot should be seen not as captions to his photographs but as voiceover. This is particularly apt as the writing serves not as a description of what we notice in the photographs but what we don’t. Through this work, it becomes clear that for Cole, to look it not to see.

This underlines the outrage you sense, to greater or lesser degree, through this and Cole’s previous books - the failure or unwillingness to see. Alongside a photograph of the ‘peaceful-looking cantons’ of Muottas Muragl, Cole writes ‘undissolved fragments of the past can be seen through the skin of the photograph’ referencing the atrocities that once took place there. As a conclusion to his quartet, Blind Spot serves a distillation of his ideas and an example of what can be seen when we rely on more than sight.

Teju Cole appeared at the Southbank Centre earlier this year to talk about his latest work, Blind Spot

Listen to Teju Cole’s talk

Cole’s appearance was one of many inspiring and enthralling literature talks to take place at Southbank Centre.

see the full programme